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Happy Days

Happy Days
Joyce Aaron, who has devoted her acting and teaching career to avant-garde theater, is currently adding her name to another distinguished list: those who have tested their mettle on perhaps contemporary theater's most challenging role, Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. Among Aaron's intrepid predecessors are Peggy Ashcroft, Irene Worth, Billie Whitelaw, Madeleine Renaud and, most notably, Ruth White, who was Winnie when the Beckett tragicomedy premiered 41 years ago at the Cherry Lane on September 17, 1961 -- and where, by no means coincidentally, this revival began previews on September 17, 2002.

Beckett is, of course, the 20th century's poet of existentialism, and Winnie is the distaff equivalent of the male characters that the unflinching playwright set fumbling unassisted through barren landscapes in Waiting for Godot and Endgame. These are the men who can't go on but do go on. Winnie is a woman who can't go on but does -- at first up to her waist in a mound of earth where some lichen appears to be sprouting and then, during the second half of the play, up to her neck in the mounting stuff. The implication is that, had Beckett written a third act, Winnie would have been completely buried but still voicing her gratitude for "another happy day" and for "great mercies."

Of this housewife who chatters indefatigably about her teeth and finding her comb and itemizing the contents of her capacious bag, as well as sharing fragments of childhood and wondering whether hair should be called "them" or "it," Beckett once said: "She's not a stoic -- she's unaware." What he never seems to have said about Winnie, whose happy days begin and end with a bell reminiscent of the one that calls children to classrooms, is that he could just as easily have titled this play Happy Daze. That's certainly what he's saying about yet another of the ever-optimistic yet ever-beleaguered representatives of the human condition in his incomparable canon. By dint of their own self-delusion, they're in a mental fog, and it's the only thing that sees them through.

Beckett's genius is that he saw the possibility for heroism in foolishness and denial, and that he could represent the paradox in plays simultaneously soul searing and hilarious. From moment to moment, as Winnie says her Hail Marys and badgers her all but unseen sidekick, Willie, for companionship, she walks an imperceptible line between gallantry and thick-headedness. Just as she holds up a mirror to check her lipstick, Beckett holds a mirror up to her and sees reflected in it the vacuum that ultimately is Everyman and Everywoman's home turf. Winnie is someone for whom weeping seems appropriate but for whom cheering is another valid response. If life is futile -- which Beckett, by using that mound as a metaphorical stand-in for punishing experience, says it is -- then refusing to capitulate to the depression it can trigger is valiant.

Aaron, working with director Joseph Chaikin as she has repeatedly done in the last three or four decades, scants none of Beckett's implications. At the sound of the starting bell, she slowly lifts her head from her arms and lets a goofy smile cross her pudding face. Looking sometimes like Giulietta Masina and sometimes like Ed Wynn in a Sylvia Miles fright wig, Aaron puts that elastic face to work -- and, in the first act, does the same with her expressive upper torso and arms. Though Winnie claims that she perceives no noticeable change in her appearance from the day before, there is no sameness in Aaron's emoting as she runs the gamut from ambivalence and anger to zest and zzzz. Incidentally, she's helped by the low-cut dress Beckett calls for and costume designer Katherine Roth supplies, and also by a silly hat with a feathery pom-pom atop it.

It may be that Aaron plays Winnie as softer than, say, Billie Whitelaw did. She may underplay moments that someone else would choose to exaggerate -- as when, having put up a parasol to shield herself from the hot sun, the damned thing combusts spontaneously and Aaron simply lets it fall behind her as if the episode makes no never mind. The reaction fits, as does the entire kinetic performance. In the second act, when only Aaron's head and voice are available for acting purposes, she maximizes both. The now quavering, now firm tones she employs -- when, for instance, she tries to provoke Willie (Ron Faber) to reply to her questions -- convey a crescendoing fear that he may no longer be able to reply.

When Willie does appear before her in a shabby tuxedo and top hat, perhaps trying to grab a pistol that Winnie had pulled from her bag earlier, she is so relieved to see him that she sings a verse of Franz Lehar's Merry Widow waltz; the moment is heartbreaking in its woeful fragility. By the way, Beckett's choice of that piece of music -- played earlier on a music box that Winnie owns -- has little to do with happy accident. Warbling the tune like a bird on a wire, Winnie insists on being as merry as she can be because she realizes that for the minute (and for better or for worse), she isn't the widow she worried that she might be.

Usually, it's assumed that Winnie and Willie are husband and wife, this despite the fact that neither word is used in the text. It could be said that the play resembles Eugene Ionesco's Chairs, in which the marrieds are eventually undone by proliferating chairs rather than rising terra-not-so-firma. As the hounded, intermittently responding husband in this production of Happy Days, Faber -- who often is required to act only with a hand held up from behind the mound -- is helpful at further establishing the wearing give-and-take that couples endure.

The set that Riccardo Hernandez has carted onto the claustrophobic Cherry Lane stage meets Beckett's requirements in the most important aspect: The hole in which Winnie is sinking has the stifling look of hardened lava where flora is having a helluva time asserting itself. The crumbling, black rubble exudes a subliminal power when, at the end, Willie tries to clamber over it to get to Winnie -- either to kiss her or to kill her. On the other hand, Hernandez hasn't provided the backdrop that Beckett asked for: an expanse of empty terrain and sky that meet, oblivion-like, in the distance. Instead, the designer has hung three beige panels that, in their own way, suggest Beckettian nothingness. Beverly Emmons's lighting design follows Aaron's lead in having a softer touch than is usual for this play. Beckett wanted blazing light to bake Winnie in the first half, but this light only simmers. Still, this Happy Days sizzles.

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